Munising: Revitalized by tourism

Munising, snugly situated along the southern shore of Lake Superior and at the entrance of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, has experienced a remarkable transformation over the past five years, largely due to burgeoning tourism. 

With its breathtaking natural beauty and a wide array of outdoor activities, Munising has become a premier destination for outdoor enthusiasts, helping the small city – home to about 2,000 residents – revitalize its local economy and community life.

The heart of Munising's tourist appeal lies with the majestic Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, a 42-mile stretch of sandstone cliffs, pristine beaches, and enchanting forested areas. This natural wonder draws visitors from far and wide, and in recent years, the number of visitors has hovered around one million annually. Many of them eat, drink, shop and stay overnight in Munising, while also pursuing other outdoor recreation.

"In 2021, we welcomed 1.3 million visitors, generating $64.2 million in local spending and supporting substantial local wages," says Cori Cearley, who is president of the Munising Visitors Bureau. These figures underscore the critical role of tourism in sustaining the local economy, even as the town navigates the challenges and fluctuations brought about by external factors like the pandemic, which prompted an influx of visitors.

The influx of visitors has spurred the growth of local businesses, with numerous food trucks, coffee trucks, restaurants, and breweries emerging in recent years. Cearley mentioned plans for a large housing development, Munising Marketplace, that will incorporate various amenities in the downtown area. 

Additionally, there has been an expansion in accommodations, including cabins, a large hotel, and short-term rentals, along with unique lodging options like yurts.

"Tourism has been what has led to most of the growth, if not the majority, of the growth in the downtown as far as businesses opening," said Katherine Reynolds, CEO of the Greater Munising Bay Partnership/Alger Co. Chamber of Commerce and executive director of the Munising Downtown Development Authority.   “This growth has created numerous job opportunities, benefiting both young residents and newcomers who have relocated to the area.” 

The impact has been noticeable among local businesses, says Zach Boucher, operations manager at Pictured Rocks Cruises, noting the company saw a 25 percent surge in passengers in 2021. The company offers various cruises along the Pictured Rocks National Shoreline during the tourist season.

"From my personal perspective, having worked in Munising since my high school days in 2010, I can confidently say that the town has undergone remarkable changes,” he says. “Back then, many businesses were either struggling or non-existent, but now, it's a whole different story."

Munising Downtown Development AuthorityTo accommodate more passengers, the company has transitioned to a newer fleet of boats designed for better passenger capacity and comfort. The company also has increased the number of trips, while being able to maintain adequate staffing levels.

 The growth of Pictured Rocks Cruises has had a positive impact on employment opportunities in Munising and surrounding areas, providing summer employment for retirees, high school, and college students. 

"I anticipate a steady rise in tourism in the Munising area annually for the upcoming years," Cearley says, stressing the need for gradual enhancements to infrastructure to support the growth. "To provide effective service, we must align with the demand, enhancing experiences for both residents and tourists alike."

The pivotal role of Pictured Rocks 

With the rise in visitors and revenue from park fees, Pictured Rocks has made significant upgrades to its facilities to better accommodate tourists.

"We've upgraded our facilities, including restrooms, and are excited to announce the reopening of our main visitor center, which has undergone substantial updates," says Amanda Corman, acting chief of Interpretation and Education at Pictured Rocks.

The park has been proactive in collaborating with local businesses and Native American tribes, ensuring that the benefits of tourism are widely distributed. Collaboration with local vendors and community partners is crucial to ensuring visitor safety and adherence to park regulations. 

Kyle Gilmore / Pure Michigan Corman emphasizes the importance of the park’s cooperative agreements with businesses located outside park boundaries, such as boat tour operators, who must adhere to specific rules set by the park. The park's commitment to conservation extends beyond its boundaries, leveraging resources from nearby national forests and refuges.

 "We believe in instilling these principles in younger visitors as they will be the future stewards of the park," said Corman.

The impact on Munising, she says, has been positive. She notes that 926,000 people visited the park in 2022, collectively spending an estimated $45.9 million in the region. These expenditures have had a positive ripple effect on the surrounding economies, supporting 549 jobs, generating $15.0 million in labor income, adding $26.2 million in value, and contributing $48.8 million to the overall economic output. Park attendance reached an all-time high in 2021 – 1.3 million visitors. 

"The small community has a lot to offer, and the increased visitation has brought jobs to the area," Corman says.

Munising’s heyday

Looking back, Munising’s heyday likely occurred in the 1920s with a population of 5,037 — a substantial increase from its first reported population of 135 in 1880, according to the U.S. Census. Over the years, the population has steadily decreased, and by 1980, it had dropped to around 1,966.

Munising, like many small towns across America, has undergone a cyclical transformation. From classic architectural downtown brick and mortar structures, including a movie theater, courthouse, candy shop, and numerous stores, hotels, and businesses supporting its growing family-centric neighborhoods, 

Over the decades, many of these buildings slowly disappeared. A decade ago, driving through Munising would have revealed closed businesses and residents moving away, as reflected in the empty and torn-down structures.

Munising Downtown Development AuthorityToday, revitalized businesses enliven the downtown area with flourishing old buildings, injecting new life into the community. Examples include the Fineman Building, now home to Galley Coffee Company and Down Wind Sports, and the old City Hall Building, which is now the Pictured Rocks Interpretive Center. These buildings and others like them have benefited from the uptick in tourism.

Tourism has allowed the DDA to also focus on enhancing downtown aesthetics to encourage visitors to spend more time and money in the area. 

"We knew that we needed to improve the looks of downtown because people were coming to town, but they were only spending a few hours in town,” Reynolds said. “We wanted them to spend more time. We wanted them to spend money at our businesses in town. We wanted them to spend the night.” 

To achieve this, various place-making efforts have been implemented, including building facade programs, murals throughout the town, a historical walk, the Maritime Alley, veterans' murals banner program, and more. She stressed the collaborative nature of these efforts, acknowledging the teamwork between the DDA, the city, attraction businesses, cruises, and local visitors.

 "It's our downtown businesses. It's everybody working together that has helped make this happen," Reynolds said. 

Addressing challenges 

Increased tourism means challenges. Managing the delicate balance between accommodating visitors and preserving the natural environment is of utmost importance.

"Pictured Rocks sets a tone for environmental consciousness, encouraging visitors to embrace sustainable practices," said Tom Nemacheck, executive director of Upper Peninsula Travel and Recreation. This approach is crucial in preserving the natural beauty that attracts visitors to the area while balancing growth.

Devin Olson, Munising city manager, is actively involved in strategic planning to address challenges such as residential and seasonal housing and infrastructure, which have been exacerbated by the influx of tourists. 

Munising Downtown Development Authority"We've been working closely with developers, adjusting zoning to support projects like the Munising Marketplace, which includes residential units and commercial spaces," Olson says. 

This proactive approach aims to enhance local amenities and address housing needs while maintaining a balance between tourism growth and community well-being.

Future outlook

As Munising looks to the future, the consensus among local stakeholders is clear: while tourism has brought prosperity and opportunities, it is imperative to continue fostering a sustainable approach that balances economic benefits with environmental and community well-being. 

The collaborative efforts of park officials, business leaders, and government representatives are pivotal in ensuring that Munising remains a vibrant and welcoming place for both residents and visitors for years to come.

Munising stands as a stellar example of a small town revitalized by the positive effects of tourism. With its breathtaking natural landscapes, thriving economy, and a strong sense of community, Munising is poised to continue its journey of growth and sustainability.

Jennifer Champagne is an accomplished entertainment + visual effects writer with a passion for storytelling. When she’s not crafting articles on industry giants, you’ll find her enjoying life with her family and their three crazy golden retriever floofs at home in middle earth.
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